Victor Noir: Still Pleased to See You (Even in Death)

17 April 2016

Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris contains the graves of many famous people, including Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. One person you may not have heard of, however, is Victor Noir. It is, in fact, his monument rather than his memory which draws people to his final resting place and for reasons you may not automatically associate with a cemetery.

You may have already noticed that much of his face is the familiar grey-green of oxidized bronze you would expect from a monument dating from 1891 (Noir died in 1870). However, the lips and the nose are unaccountably shiny. Victor Noir’s mouth and nose are regularly caressed and kissed. Yet the host of women who descend upon his tombstone have more than Victor’s face in mind when they visit. Despite only the faintest trace of a smile across it, Victor Noir is, it seems, still very pleased to see you.

The bronze sculpture has a very noticeable protrusion of some prominence in the trouser department. Whether or not this is a reflection of Victor’s reputation while alive it has certainly afforded him one post mortem. Victor’s monument has become one of France’s more unusual fertility symbols.

It is believed that if a woman kisses Victor on the lips and then rubs that bulge in his trousers then her fertility will be much enhanced and that a baby will follow soon after (the getting of which, according to the legend, will be even more blissful than usual). Single ladies in search of a man need not worry either: a furtive but friendly frottage with Monsieur Noir will ensure a husband within the year. From the looks of all that French polish, it seems that a lot of women believe the story.

There is, of course, payment. Each visitor to Victor’s recumbent form must place a flower in to his hat or hand to thank him for his time. The sculpture, which portrays Victor prone, his hat fallen to the ground, gives some clue to the manner in which death approached him – rather unexpectedly.

Victor Noir was a French political journalist during the time of the Imperial Bonapartist regime of Napoleon III (which lasted from 1852 – 1870). The editor of his newspaper had been challenged to a duel by Prince Pierre Bonaparte after the publication of an article which was rather disparaging about the prince’s great uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte. Prince Pierre challenged the editor, Paschal Grousset, to a duel, despite the fact that his great uncle had been dead almost fifty years.

Grousset accepted and dispatched his seconds (one of whom was Noir) to arrange a time and a date with Prince Pierre who then, following an altercation, duly dispatched Victor Noir to the great hereafter. The truth of what exactly had caused this outrage in the streets was never fully discovered but the courts sided with the prince, accepting his story that Noir had taken umbrage at being called a lackey of Grousset and had struck the prince (after which, of course, he was left with no choice other than to gun him down in the street).

Over 100,000 people attended Noir’s funeral and his death pricked many a republican in to action against the Emperor’s regime. There was violence on the streets of a number of French cities but a more liberal constitution was quickly voted in by a plebiscite and further bloodshed was avoided. Although the hopes of the republicans seemed to have vanished the Emperor was in fact overthrown within nine months.

Noir’s body was taken to Père Lachaise Cemetery twenty one years after his death and the monument we see here was erected (not to put too much of a fine point on it). Since then his has become one of the most visited graves in the cemetery. To keep his face, groin and feet so shiny and nickel clean it is estimated that many thousands of women have taken a surreptitious joyride atop his recumbent, bronze form.

Dalou, the sculptor, was perhaps wrong in portraying just that flicker of a smile on Victor Noir’s face: a smug grin would, perhaps, have been more appropriate.

First Image Credit Flickr User MB Schlemmer


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